While traveling on a cruise, it can be challenging to immerse yourself in the local culture. After all, you’re stopping only for one brief day in each location, which merely gives you a taste of a place. With that said, here are many benefits to cruising. We were able to experience a whole bunch of places in a short period of time, being transported to them as we slept at night. It makes a lot of sense to hop between the Caribbean islands from a cruise ship. This was my sixth time visiting St. Thomas as a daily stop on a cruise. Robyn and I participated in an ecotour excursion to Cas Cay in the morning. After our tour, we were in search of some lunch and I decided that we should try a local vegetarian restaurant in St Thomas. Even though meals are fully included on the ship, dining at a local restaurant gives you the opportunity to mingle with the locals and try some traditional cuisine. After consulting a map of the town on my phone (using the helpful app, Maps.Me), we decided to venture over to Sweet Life Cafe in Frenchtown, a settlement west of Charlotte Amalie.
On our way, we did a little bit of shopping. Downtown Charlotte Amalie is mostly renowned for its multitude of jewelry stores, fancy watch shops, and a fair amount of souvenir stands. We didn’t partake in too much “retail therapy”, with the exception of purchasing some small art prints and a few gifts for loved ones back home. It was fun to look around, absorbing the sights and sounds of Charlotte Amalie. The shops and government buildings were painted in bright colors, a common sight all over the Caribbean.
As we continued our stroll down the main street, there were fewer and fewer tourists. It didn’t take long to be away from the crowds of cruise ship passengers. We took a couple of turns down cobblestone sidewalks, looking for house numbers in an attempt to find the restaurant. After walking to the end of the the road and realizing that we must have passed it, we finally stumbled upon the building, nestled down a side street. We found Sweet Life Cafe.
Sweet Life Cafe didn’t have much of an online presence. They had no website; their listing on Happy Cow contained no reviews. We had no preconceived expectations of the restaurant, other than being able to find vegetarian food there. We walked inside and saw only a couple of small tables within the restaurant. The walls were painted bright shades of lime green and deep purple, covered with photos of Bob Marley. It didn’t take long to realize that this was vegetarian restaurant owned by Rastafarians. It completely made sense as many Rastafarians are vegetarians or vegans, adhering to an Ital diet. Robyn and I were warmly greeted by a friendly lady who asked us to sit where we liked. We picked one of the tables in the middle of the room; there were no other guests dining at the restaurant that afternoon. The cafe had no air conditioning, though the windows were open and it was quite shaded, so we never felt uncomfortably hot.
After a casual chat with the lady about where we were from and how we discovered the restaurant, an older man with long dreadlocks approached the table. The cafe had no menus; different meals were offered each day. The man handed us some postcards that showed a picture of their most popular item, the cafe’s well-known veggie burger. He recommended that we give it a try, so we couldn’t resist ordering them. I asked for my veggie burger to not include cheese, making it vegan.
While the man left to prepare our food, the lady wanted to know if we would like to try some of the local juices. We tried samples of two different drinks: one made from sorrel, and the other made from tamarind. Both samples tasted extremely refreshing, so we ordered large sizes of both juices. The sorrel drink is a traditional Caribbean juice made from the petals of the sorrel flower, otherwise known as the roselle (a member of the hibiscus family). If you can find fresh or dried sorrel, you can create a similar juice using this recipe. Similarly, the tamarind drink is also popular throughout the Caribbean. It is a juice made from the pulp of the tamarind that you can create using this recipe. I had never tried anything like either juice. They were both fruity without being too sweet, perfectly refreshing on a warm day.
As we sipped our juice and awaited our veggie burgers, a younger man entered the restaurant. The lady asked us if we wanted to see some local fruit. We nodded in agreement. She sent the younger man away. Several minutes later, he later returned with a large bucket filled to the brim with knobby green fruits that I had never seen before. They explained that this was the Sugar Apple fruit.
The Sugar Apple is native to the tropical Americas and the West Indies, and is also known as a Custard Apple in the Philippines. Its flesh tastes similar to custard, and it is fragrant and sweet. Unfortunately, these freshly picked sugar apples would not ripen for a few days, and we were not permitted to bring back any produce with us aboard the cruise ship. Sadly, we didn’t get to taste the sugar apples as they did not have any ripened ones to offer us. Nevertheless, it was still very interesting to learn about a fruit that I’d never seen before.
Before long, our veggie burgers were delivered to the table. The burgers were made using lentils, vegetables, and spices. They sat nestled inside a pita, topped with fresh vegetables and ketchup. The burgers were indeed very flavorful and I could tell why they were so popular. They were actually quite filling, completely satisfying my hunger.
As we ate our veggie burgers, the younger man with the bucket of fresh fruits sat at our table with us, chatting away. I’ve never had this happen at a restaurant before! I’m not sure if he worked at the restaurant, was related to the owners in some way, or was simply a friendly local resident. The lady conversed with us as well throughout our meal about island living, though they definitely seemed more curious about our lives back in Toronto and where we were headed on our cruise. Though everyone spoke English, it was difficult to understand them sometimes as they had heavy accents that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing, and they also spoke very fast! I felt bad asking them to repeat themselves on numerous occasions.
One funny thing happened. When we finished our meals, we didn’t entirely finish the burgers. Though they were delicious, they were filling. The younger man asked, “You’re not going to finish that? You don’t want to take it with you?” We explained that the cruise ship wouldn’t allow us to carry on prepared fresh foods, only packaged foods. He excitedly exclaimed, “Well, I’ll eat it! Free food! Can’t let it go to waste!”. With one hand, he grabbed what was left of my veggie burger and started to gobble it down. I have to say that I’ve never dined with a stranger in this manner, and I’ve definitely never had a complete stranger finish my meal!
For two veggie burgers and two large juices, the total only came to $24, which was very reasonable. We paid our bill. The younger man asked us if we wanted any of the sugar apples. We felt bad that he had gone to the effort of picking them from the trees to show us, so we gave him a few dollars for a couple of them, even though we couldn’t bring them back to the ship with us.
We bid farewell to the lovely couple who owned Sweet Life Cafe while the younger man followed us outside, making sure we knew how to get back to the main road towards the cruise ship. Though we were left chuckling about the entire experience, it truly made for a highly memorable afternoon. Even though we were merely tourists in St. Thomas for one day, we managed to mingle with some kind restaurant owners and sample some of the tasty local cuisine. If you find yourself in port for the day, don’t hesitate to wander off the beaten path to Sweet Life Cafe, particularly if you’d like to try healthy, fresh, and local vegetarian food.
Sweet Life Cafe
2 Reg Jerrings Gade, St. Thomas
Open: Monday-Friday 11:00am-5:00pm
What was your favorite local dining experience while traveling?